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My daughter is turning 3 this December, she goes to pre-school with other kids who speak totally different languages. We're from a remote part of India, thus she shares her mother-tongue with no one else at school (including the teachers and care-takers).

We do speak English but it is not all the time - more because we want her to know our language, while picking up English and not totally enforcing English altogether.

Currently, she does communicate with us, talks to us and with her teachers and peers. However, I've noticed that she is totally missing the letter "r" either in English words or our own language (Manipuri). Anything with an "r" is skipped or replaced by something like "l". So, "Dress" is like "Dless", "Bread" is "bled".

Should I be concerned?

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up vote 19 down vote accepted

The /r/ sound is quite complex to produce and requires refined oral motor skills. It is often one of the last developing sounds in children. As a speech language pathologist, I work with many children who have difficulty with this sound.

Because it's a later developing sound, using another sound such as the /l/ for it at 3 years of age is considered appropriate. The examples you gave are of /r/ blends which is even more difficult than an /r/ as a single consonant at the beginning, middle or end of a word. Can she say (er) clearly when imitating a crowing chicken, squeaky door, or siren? Or, does she use the /r/ correctly in any words? If so, she is well on track for her age. Her /r/ will likely continue to develop appropriately.

If not, here are activities that you can do at this age that can support the development of the /r/ sound.

  • Straw drinking from the very tip of a straw (1/4 inch). This builds lip and tongue strength needed for the sound. Gradually build up to sucking only from the tip of the straw by using hard plastic straws with figures on them or placing bumpers designed for this use. Each week (or when the child is easily drinking from the adapted length without difficulty), clip another 1/4 inch off until only 1/4 remains. Here is a link for the full straw treatment program that I use that is very effective.
  • Sucking the tongue against the roof of the mouth and quickly popping it free as the jaw is fully lowered is a great exercise for building tongue strength for the /r/ sound. This movement is very similar to clucking to a horse and children enjoy making the popping sound in this activity. Increase the number of repetitions as the child's skill increases. You may begin with only 2-3 and move to hundreds of times playfully during the day. Remember to drop the jaw as fully as possible and keep the tongue fully behind/inside the upper teeth when sucking it to the palate.
  • When the lips are protruded, the tongue reflexively retracts approximating the position needed for the /r/ sound. Practice curling the lips out in a mirror in play. Young children enjoy making a 'fish face' by protruding the lips and tightening or sucking in their cheeks. I sometimes teach older children to balance a pencil on their upper lip with no hands.
  • Practice the (er) sound by 'crowing' or imitating a squeaky door, or a siren. As the tongue strength develops, this is the easiest way to make the /r/ sound without having to move quickly to connecting sounds which is a harder task. After she has a very clear (er) begin emphasizing and encouraging its use at the ending and then beginning of words. The middle of words is often harder and will follow the final and initial positions.
  • Blends are often the last to emerge. They are sometimes easier using the /gr/ combination. Making the /g/ sound elevates the tongue in the back of the mouth near where the /r/ sound is produced so the /g/ naturally complements the /r/.
  • A speech language pathologist can help your child if she has not developed the /r/ sound by the time she reaches school age or if you continue to be concerned about her sound development. If /r/ is her only problem at this age, I suspect that she may continue to develop the sound without significant intervention. The use of straws, tongue pops, and practicing the sound in isolation are fun activities that you can do easily that will support her development.
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I had problems with my "R" sounds as well as a child. "The little white bunny rabbit" was pronounced as, "The wittil white bunny wabbit". As a result, I'm trying desperately to not browbeat my son with how he pronounces his "R"s as well (he's just 3 years old too). –  Darwy Oct 2 '11 at 9:53
    
@Darwy I understand your concern. Turn your focus on doing some of the activities above in fun and know that you are supporting his /r/ with no "browbeating". –  Marie Hendrix Oct 2 '11 at 12:36
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@MarieHendrix That was a really good answer, and 100% correct. I had the same issue with the R sound as a child and a speech pathologist sorted it out with the same sort of exercises you listed here. I can distinctly remember the frustration of thinking that the R sounded exactly the same when I said it and when someone else said it, and being understanding of that goes a long way. Oh, and the most intimidating word in world back then was "railroad"... –  sXe Oct 10 '11 at 18:54
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